The Hong Kong Protests Explained

A protestor outside the British Consulate General during a demonstration in Hong Kong, on June 26, 2019. LightRocket via Getty Images

Background

Protests in Hong Kong are in full swing. Protests were sparked in mid-June of this year by widespread opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill, which would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

These protests have brought into focus the "one country, two systems" deal under which Hong Kong is governed. When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 by Britain, both sides agreed that the city would remain a semi-autonomous region under the Basic Law, its mini-Constitution, for 50 years. The Basic Law provides people in Hong Kong more political freedoms than their counterparts in mainland China.

There is a relatively free press, an unregulated Internet and a less-controlled judicial system in Hong Kong. Beijing has increasingly tried to exert its influence on the city in recent years, raising concerns of the city’s pro-democracy groups.

They say the extradition bill would empower Hong Kong’s government to send critics of Beijing to the mainland where the criminal justice system is tightly controlled by the establishment. The extradition-bill was first proposed by the government of Hong Kong on February 2019. On June 9, about one million people marched to the government headquarters in protest.

Escalation

The death of a woman in July-- known to most of the world by her last name, Mak -- was the fourth suspected suicide to be connected by local media to ongoing demonstrations, sparked initially by the controversial extradition bill.

A Hong Kong police officer fired a live shot into the air as protesters squared off against police armed with water cannons last week, in one of the most violent nights seen since mass pro-democracy protests began in June. Chinese state media signaled that Beijing is losing patience with protesters. Tear gas was initially deployed but failed to disperse the group. Later, a water cannon was used against a makeshift barricade, marking the first time water cannon vans had ever been used in the city. Protesters were pushed back, but again the crowd didn't disperse. 

Demonstrators are surrounded by tear gas during a protest in Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong, on August 25, 2019. Reuters.

As the violence escalated, six officers drew their pistols after being surrounded by armed protesters and one officer fired a live shot into the air, police said.

The Hong Kong police said in a statement that the officers were "surrounded, under attacks and facing threats to life" and one officer “fired a warning shot to the sky without any other choices."

What happens next?

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader “indefinitely suspended” the extradition bill shortly after it was announced, but the demonstrations continue. It’s withdrawal seemed unlikely to fully stop the movement, which has since broadened far beyond that single issue to include calls for political reforms and an independent inquiry into police behavior. Other demands include forgiveness for arrested protesters and the retraction of the label of some protesters as “rioters.”

Ma Ngok says, “Hong Kong is changed. The government and police have lost the trust of the people and it cannot be recovered. [The events] also are a blow to the international image of Hong Kong. I don't think it can be easily recovered.”